Thai Thoughts And Anecdotes Part 114
SHIPS IN THE NIGHT
One of the wonderful benefits of being stupid like I am is that I am constantly surrounded by smarter and more hip people than myself. And these evolutionary giants never mind taking time out of their busy days to point out my deficiencies. The best examples of these people are the legions of young overseas politically correct adventuring white women with bras made of hemp and shoes made of goat's cheese and backpacks woven from menstrual rags of famous feminist writers. You can most easily find these evolutionary point persons in the currency exchange booth lines on Khao San Road. Just look for the ringed toes and the baggy pants and the shrew mouth. Striking up a conversation with one of these future mothers can be interesting and enlightening. But don't laugh. And whatever you do don't give them a teddy bear. They'll shove it up your ass. One of the favorite ideas of these ignorant prattling college educated muttonheads is that all people are really the same. We just look and sound different. But we are really all the same. Under the skin there is no difference between the Thais and say–me. Really?
My experience visiting many countries is that if there is one thing that travel teaches you it is that we are all mostly not the same. These little social scientists with one introductory course in comparative literature and one introductory course in anthropology might be more profitably spending their time contemplating what makes individuals different from each other and what makes groups of individuals different than other groups of individuals. That might be the real shortcut that leads to better human relations. For a Christian from New York to be telling a Buddhist Thai from That Phanom that their two religious points of view are basically the same–you know, if you dig deep enough; is just silly. No, the word I was looking for is stupid. But you can't drive a stake in the heart of this idea. The romantic notion that we are all the same is a rosy tinted notion of reality whose currency has not diminished in fifty years. And to postulate otherwise is unwise.
When Margaret Mead, the famous twentieth century American anthropologist, first decamped for Polynesia to study primitive societies she was shocked to find people that practiced infanticide and every other kind of ‘cide. Violence to no purpose and insensitivity to individual dignity were endemic and pandemic. As a young adult and fledgling anthropologist she had expected to fill the pages of her notebook with Rousseauian descriptions and images and dialogue illustrating commonality and oneness with nature. Instead she was forced by the protocol of academic objectivity to notate horrors she had never thought of before or witnessed before. I'll bet if you could have gotten ten beers into her politically correct body she would have blurted out–"People are Different". Upon her return to academia she made some factual, observational, and critical remarks about what she had witnessed. It nearly derailed her career. Reality was not as appealing as myth. And the myth was that we are all basically more same than different. Well maybe. But like in most other things it is the results that count–and if the tribal results include indefensible beastliness visited upon others I think a little critical intellectual behavior is not amiss.
To reduce this to the ridiculous: where is the toilet paper in Thai bathrooms? If I summon all of the working synapses in my brain and get them to all work in some gigantic synergistic harmonious way I can not think of anything that should bind we human beings together more than the act of shitting. Oh I know, you could mention things like breathing and swallowing and spontaneous erections in Robinson's Department store but those are involuntary muscular reactions. Shitting is something where you know what you are doing. We all do. We might have thought about it in advance. We might have formed some thoughts while in the act. We might use the occasion to catch up on some reading. And we might reflect on what we have done when we are finished. Heck, we often make a remark to someone else after we are finished. This is the one thing that most basically ties all homo sapiens together and yet even here we are different.
The Thais don't use toilet paper. I'd like to see the starry eyed Miss Full Moon Party with the henna painted pussy explain that one. So trying to improve farang-Thai relations by emphasizing our commonalities is the wrong road to be going down. We should be pointing out each others differences. For instance the Thais can't tell time. The Thais can't drive. The Thais can't find Thailand on a map of the world. It is all right to laugh when you are doing this. It is important to have a good time when forging international relations.
Heck, I don't want to be unfair here but sometimes you just wonder about some things when bouncing around the Kingdom on hotel tours. Standing under the tin roof of the Umbrella Factory (an open shed) outside of Chiang Mai watching three generations of female family and female friends pounding on Mulberry bark to make paper umbrellas you gotta wonder why this conversation never took place:
"Girls, it's the dry season. Nobody needs these stupid umbrellas. Why don't we turn this mulberry bark paper into toilet paper. Just once before I lay these brittle, tired ass, mulberry bark pounding bones down I'd like the dignity of wiping my ass with some toilet paper. I used to dream for you girls to marry successfully and have a family. I used to dream that my husband would look only at me. I used to dream that my beauty would not leave me. Now I am embarrassed at the superficiality of those dreams. I am an old woman now and I can see with the clarity of my approaching judgement and rebirth that I can dream bigger. And this is my dream. Just once before I lay these brittle, tired ass, mulberry bark pounding bones down I'd like the dignity of wiping my ass with some toilet paper."
Lowell Thomas, a famous early twentieth century American traveler and explorer, was once asked in retirement what his years of travel and exploration had taught him. He responded along the vein that people were tremendously different. This was on a popular TV chat show in the 70's. His response was politically incorrect. He wasn't invited on any more television programs. Again the myth of commonality was more attractive and sacred than the fact of differentness. I doubt if witnessing rural Thai women go through the post-birth hot stove procedure that it occurred to him that his mother and this new jungle mother were the same. Probably what occurred to him was to jot down the differences in his journal that night.
What I find most disturbing about this popular notion of commonality versus the factual reality of differentness is that I wonder if the notion of commonality is so popular because commonality has more appeal than differentness. Which means we are now stumbling around in the netherworld of feelings instead of facts. All tribal defensiveness is built on the fear of what is different–the other tribe six miles away is different so we fear them so let us attack them and kill them. This feels like the right thing to do. There I just gave you the history of man. So why should anyone care? Well, I care. I don't want to live in a world where everyone is the same. Where we are all in common. It is the polyglot racial and culture chaos of Thailand that makes it an interesting place. I don't want people from northern Thailand who really speak Laotian to be like me. I'd like them not to place my life or my health in danger and I would like some reciprocity regarding issues of human dignity but after that I really don't care. I don't want every woman I meet in Patong or Pattaya or the Phi Phi islands or Phitsanulok or Pathiu or Pai or Phayao or Pattani or Petchaburi or Phang Khon to be the same (honk if you love the atlas).
I sometimes wonder if all of this hippy-dippy holier-than-thou silliness about our sameness isn't the wrong road to be going down. If every woman I had met in Thailand had been the same and more like me than unlike me I might have stopped at woman number two. As it is, I don't intend to ever stop. Anyone who presents the idea of marriage to me has to have a presentation more compelling than the next one hundred different women I intend to have relations with. I'm a good listener but it is going to take a lot to strap me to that baby carriage.
It is because of our differences that I despair of the addenda notion of the hemp bra people. The addenda notion is that because we are mostly the same that we can learn to communicate with one another and understand each other's points of view. Let's all hug. The reason this idea has legs is that it would cut down on war and hopefully increase time spent loving. But is it possible? I more and more don't think so. I am more and more adopting the steady state notion of the social universe and embracing the notion that what we have is what we are going to have in the next one hundred years there will probably be not much improvement. For you academic social climbers and PhD wannabes there is a thesis in that previous statement. Here, I'll say it again. I am more and more adopting the steady state notion of the social universe and embracing the notion that what we have is what we are going to have in the next one hundred years there will probably not be much improvement.
That is the price to be paid for differentness–lack of communication. When I arrive at the Kingdom and my feet touch the tarmac at the foot of the deplaning stairs and I know that I am on Thai soil I also know without fear of debate or contradiction that I am going to be misunderstood or not understood by virtually 100% of the Thais that I come in contact with. That is the price I pay for novelty. In fact, logically; there is little difference between traveling to Thailand to be surrounded by Thais and traveling to Mars to be surrounded by Martians. You may think there is a difference but that is only a feeling you have or a need you have. Logically, traveling to Thailand is little different than traveling to Mars except it does not take quite as long. If I tell my office mates that I am going to Mars, oops I mean Thailand, for vacation; they don't get it. But all expats know what I am talking about. The fact that Thais are mammals that belong to the same species as me should mean that we have some commonalities. I am waiting for that happy day to happen.
Let me give you an example: I write on the internet on Thai related issues and every now and then I get a response to something I have written from a Thailand based Thai. In 100% of the cases they did not understand what I wrote or what I intended. And these responders are the active participants. People who are reading the site and reading what I wrote and confident enough of their English comprehension reading skills and English comprehension writing skills to correspond with me. These are the self-screened winners. And not one of them has ever got it right. In the beginning I used to correspond and try to straighten everything out in the interests of international relations and human-to-human contact and the sanctity of facts. I have stopped that. Trying to communicate with people that you can not communicate with is like pissing into the wind. You are just going to get it all over you.
And it is not only technical linguistics that gets in the way but also cultural ways of looking at things. Their filters for incoming data and my filter for incoming data are different filters. Different filters lead to different conclusions, different experiences, different expectations–miscommunications. Our differentness is the reason we are doomed to separate lives. Like two ships that pass in the night. Leaning on the rail on a hot tropical night looking at the lights of the other ship you can imagine that the people aboard are more like you than unlike you but it is just an idea. The ships are passing each other in the night. No connection can be made. The people on the other ship might be more like you than unlike you; but on the other hand the people on the passing ship might be more unlike you than like you. The notion of primal commonality is just an idea you have. An idea is not a fact. The fact is that two ships are passing in the night.
While typing this out I happened to notice that I had put the hotel business card for the Right Spot Inn in South Pattaya on the frame of my monitor. Whoever the salesperson was that sold the hotel on this business card was a great salesman because this is a fancy sophisticated fun business card. It is high resolution bifold that reads like a book. The cover is a nice night shot of the hotel sign, the inside left hand page has some useful phrases in English and Thai, the right hand page talks about the hotel and the restaurant with a map, and the back cover has a nice inside shot of one of the hotel rooms. So what is the big deal you say? Well the Useful Phrases page has nineteen phrases and eight of the phrases are:
I do not speak Thai.
42% of the Useful Phrases for the tourist illustrate the fact that you just have no idea what you are doing in the country and you might very well end up in the hospital or the police station. This friendly helpful tourist oriented hotel business card should give us pause and alert us to not be so cavalier about how Thais and farangs are really the same. It's a different world jungle. God forbid you should some day find yourself in the hospital or the police station. Suddenly fear will wipe away your silly social theories and pretensions and politically correct cocktail chatter bleating and you will be face to face with reality. And the reality is that we are not all the same. Some Thai doctors feel that Thai blood and farang blood are different. I hope you get that transfusion you need.
Of course technical linguistics is the easiest thing to point at. The problem with two people of different cultures and different levels of language proficiency reading the same writing is that not everyone is holding the same cards. In net based cross cultural writing language basics like wit and whimsy and irony and multiple meanings and western references and double entendres, and inside cultural jokes, and self deprecation, and hyperbole, and analogies simply don't travel well. I once made the mistake in an email to a Thai that had responded to something that I had written of mentioning that the United States had gotten rid of it's King in 1776. This historical fact was part of a larger point that I was making. This is how it was received by the Thai–
‘America got rid of it's King in 1776–I hate Kings–I hate the King of Thailand–I am a pompous imperialist capitalist Thai hating pig.'
It's a good thing we are not neighbors. I would be in Bang Kwang prison by now. So much for brothers under the skin.
I can place myself in the Thai's position. In the eighth grade I was placed in French class. We had to read a book called Les Miserables (apt title for all of the boys in the class). All of the words in the French text could be looked up in the back of the book. So I would read the first French word and then look it up in the back of the book. Then I would read the second French word and look it up in the back of the book. Then I would read the third French word and look it up in the back of the book. Then I would forget the meaning of the second French word so I would have to look it up in the back of the book again. Etc. If there was any meaning to the book Les Miserables it would have completely escaped me because all I was capable of was linear literal transliteration. That is what the Thais are doing when they read something of mine in English. Armed with their English-Thai dictionary they do a linear literal transliteration as if they are German U-boat commanders cracking the code on a birthday message from Hitler. The meaning of what I wrote escapes them. The definitions of words are never enough. They are only the clues. You have to divine the mystery by putting all the clues together.
So in conclusion I am not convinced that there is going to be any significant increase in understanding between the Thais and the farangs. I am not even persuaded that it is a good idea. I think the situation that we have now is actually normal and probably all that we can expect. And I'm ok with it. I don't want us to be all the same and to all be brothers under the skin and to always understand each other. What would be the fun of that? One of the biggest disappointments of my life was that myself and a Thai woman named Noi could just never get it together. I believe most of the problem was communication. We just could not communicate with each other. I used to engage in self pitying internal wish dramas along the lines of–"What if we had been able to communicate with each other?" I've stopped that. We couldn't and that's that. We were not mostly the same. We were mostly different. And that's ok.
"We were mostly different." That says it all. Thais and farangs, typical Thais and typical farangs that is, are very different.